Ice Hockey World Cup in Minsk: the Party Is Over
On 25 May the final game between the teams of Russia and Finland brought the Ice Hockey World Cup in Minsk to an end. The biggest international event in Belarus’ sovereign history lasted for 17 days and turned Minsk into a different place. The normally calm and strictly disciplined city became one big party.
The inflow of tourists created an aura of internationalism that blended and mixed in its own unique way with various local peculiarities. As a result, the colourful celebrations and record-breaking attendance of the matches went hand-in-hand with such egregious things as preventive arrests of opposition activists and a prohibition on selling imported beer.
One of the most notable moments came at the end. The final night of the tournament saw an invasion of Minsk by Russian fans, which caused mixed feelings among the city’s inhabitants.
Minsk Set a New Record
Long before the start of the tournament, Aliaksandr Lukashenka proclaimed that it would become the best World Hockey Cup in history. His statements suggested that he considered the games attendance numbers as the central criteria of success.
Not surprisingly, the championship in Minsk broke the previous attendance record from the 2004 World Cup in the Czech Republic. About 640,000 spectators came to watch the games in Minsk, whereas the Czech tournament had around 552,000.
The use of administrative resources (mandatory distribution of tickets among state enterprises or free giving out of them to young hockey players) undoubtedly played some role in setting this record. However, it seems that the main factor had to do with the enormous interest that the World Cup had stirred up in Belarusian society. Tickets, especially for Belarus' games, were in huge demand. It looked like local people enjoyed the championship and were interested in becoming an active part of it.
These sentiments coincide with the polling data. According to the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS), only 8.6% of Belarus’ citizens supported the idea of pulling the World Cup from Minsk due to the political situation in the country, a move that some opposition and civil society activists promoted.
The exact number of foreigners who visited Minsk during the championship remains unknown as Belarus has an open border with Russia, where the majority of fans came from. According to the Belarusian authorities, foreign citizens had purchased more than 70,000 tickets. And the Border Guards reported that about 31,000 tourists arrived from countries other than Russia.
“A Huge Party”
Rene Fasel, President of the International Ice Hockey Federation, complimented Belarus on its superb organisation of the games. The absolute majority of foreign fans who came to Minsk held the same opinion.
Indeed, the organisers offered various appealing opportunities for different categories of fans. 14 new hotels and dozens of cafes and restaurants had been opened before the Cup’s start. Rich fans could stay at new 5-star hotels and enjoy the beauties of the Minsk nightlife available to the more well-off. And those with a lower budget could rent rooms in student dormitories, which had been vacated for the duration of the World Cup, and spend time in the so-called 'hospitality zones'.
The biggest such zone was located in the very centre of the city and consisted of a large stage for live performances, space for dancing, numerous open-air fast food cafes and small souvenirs shops. One could find cheap food and drinks (including beer for $2-3 a bottle) there.
No wonder, these hospitality zones enjoyed great popularity among both foreign fans and local citizens. Every day of the tournament, thousands of people would find their way to one. And the last night, according to official estimates, saw around 200,000 people celebrating the end of the World Cup in the hospitality zones.
Aliaksandr Lukashenka ordered that during the tournament the police should not stop fans from drinking alcohol in the streets, even though this violates the Belarusian laws. The order turned the whole championship into a big drinking event.
One Finnish fan that the author had a chance to talk to offered an accurate summary of what was happening in the hospitality zones: “I have been to many Ice Hockey World Cups and I assure you that only in Minsk has it become such a huge party”.
The World Cup Meets Belarusian Peculiarities
Thus, the 17 days of the championship turned the otherwise calm and orderly city of Minsk into a long and relaxed party. Many Belarusians could, perhaps for the first time in their lives, meet Swiss, Czech, Swedish or even Canadian nationals and toast with them even without knowing a word in a foreign language. It appeared to be a real and important opening up event for the country.
Unfortunately, the positive effects of the World Cup coincided with a number of sad developments. First of all, the authorities resorted to their usual arsenal of methods to make sure that opposition activists did not try organise pickets or other unwanted actions during the tournament. They preventively arrested over 20 activists, ostensibly for misdemeanours, and sentenced them to 15-20 days in prison.
Another example of how the Belarusian government’s habitual nature affected the tournament revealed itself in a less expected way. A couple of days before the start of the event, the authorities of Minsk advised all shops, cafes, bars and restaurants to sell only Belarus-produced beer during the championship. In the Belarusian administrative vocabulary, such 'advice' amounts to a direct prohibition. Apparently, the authorities saw it as a way to boost local brewers’ sales.
In all probability, the majority of fans did not even notice this unexpected monopoly of Belarusian beer. But foreign businessmen who consider investing in Belarus must have made some additional conclusions about the country’s business climate.
Russians Are Coming and Going
The last night of the World Cup looked different from the rest of the tournament. While most foreigners were leaving Minsk, more Russian fans came to support their team in the final game against Finland – including Vladimir Putin, who kept his plan to visit Minsk a secret.
After the match, the central streets of Minsk became flooded with Russian flags and people celebrating their victory. The behaviour of Russian fans seemed to confirm all traditional stereotypes: drunk, reckless and aggressively patriotic — some waiving Soviet or Russian flags with Crimea written on them. They received mixed reactions from Minsk's inhabitants. Many joined Russian fans in their celebrations and loud victorious chants. And others tried to stay away and simply enjoy the last hours of a party so large, Minsk had never seen the likes of it before.
Poroshenko and Lukashenka: Will the Ukrainian President Defend Belarus in the West?
On 26 May the future President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko stated that Belarus and his country can cooperate to help Lukashenka take steps towards establishing a democracy. Poroshenko also said that Lukashenka could consider him a friend, and their countries share common interests.
The president-elect of Ukraine knows Belarus better than any other ruler in Europe except, of course, Putin. Poroshenko was one of the main advocates of improving relations between Belarus and the West during the reign of Orange Revolution president Viktor Yushchenko. He also solved several economic issues between the two countries during his time in office on Yanukovych’s team as the Minister of Economy and previously had business interests in Belarus.
The election of a new president in Ukraine gives both sides hope for the restoration of trade relations between the two countries to previous levels. However, it remains unlikely that Ukraine will become an example for democratic transition for Belarusians. Ukraine brings up feelings of fear, not admiration, among many Belarusians.
Deepening cooperation between the countries may worsen the relations between Minsk and Moscow, but improve the image of Lukashenka’s regime ties with the West. Still, it seems highly unlikely that Poroshenko will once more champion Belarus’ case with the West.
On 25 May Petro Poroshenko stated that he has maintained friendly relations with Alexander Lukashenka. From his years of service in the government, Poroshenko has gotten to know the Belarusian political class quite well. Moreover, their cooperation has brought about many benefits for both countries both economically and politically.
Poroshenko visited Minsk in 2009 as Ukraine's foreign minister, when the Ukrainian authorities were advocating for a dialogue between the European Union and Lukashenka’s regime. Lukashenka's visit to Kyiv, the only one during the reign of Yushchenko, was the apparent result of these negotiations. At that time the Belarusian authorities considered their improved relations with Ukraine as part and parcel of normalising relations with the West.
Poroshenko has also worked with Belarusian Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich and his deputy Uladzimir Semashka. As a result of the negotiations between the parties, both countries removed restrictions on the import of meat, dairy products and beer.
the president-elect of Ukraine often visited Belarus promoting the interests of his machine construction and confectionery companies Read more
Moreover, the president-elect of Ukraine often visited Belarus promoting the interests of his machine construction and confectionery companies. Poroshenko's Roshen holds a commanding position on the Belarusian chocolate market.
Poroshenko worked on both Yushchenko's and Yanukovych's teams, so he has seen Belarus from different perspectives. Most Ukrainians, and Poroshenko as well, feel grateful for Lukashenka’s support and opposition to the country’s federalisation, the most important demand of Kremlin's policy towards Kyiv since the interim government took over. Thus, the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations have plenty of room for improvement.
How the Ukrainian Elections Can Affect Belarus
Ukraine's pro-European choice remains unlikely to become an example of change for Belarusian society. Economically and socially Ukraine remains behind Belarus and the war in the east of the country will destabilise it for a long time. According to the Institute of Socio-Economic and Political studies April study, 70% of Belarusians do not want such a transition to occur in Belarus.
If Poroshenko’s team stabilises the country and improves the welfare of Ukraine, Belarusians may begin to view these changes more favourably. Ukraine has already shown its willingness to change for better. For example, the levels of transparency and voter engagement during the Ukrainian elections were themselves something that Belarusians would find enviable.
Belarusians perceive the world through the lens of Russian TV Read more
However, even with the possible success of Ukraine, Belarusians perceive the world through the lens of Russia. A restricted-access sociological study to which the author has access to shows that programme 'News of the Week with Dmitry Kisilev' remains the most popular informational television programme of its kind in Belarus.
This Russian television program has become one of the main mouthpieces of the Russian information war against Ukraine. At the same time, the authorities cut Ukrainian TV from cable packages in some Belarusian cities. In May Brest was hit, a city in the west of Belarus that has a large Ukrainian minority.
While these elections hardly affect Belarusian society, the Belarusian authorities expect improvements in the realm of economic cooperation. Indeed, it is the main reason why they want to see the situation in Ukraine stabilise as soon as possible. On 26 May even the Belarusian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on twitter about the Ukrainian elections under the hashtag #UnitedforUkraine (a hashtag created by the U.S. State Department).
The crisis in Ukraine has already affected the Belarusian economy. Ukraine remains the second largest trading partner of Belarus. However, for the first quarter of 2014, when compared with the first quarter of 2013, Belarusian exports to Ukraine declined by more than 5%, while imports from Ukraine dropped by 30%. Shares of US-Belarusian IT corporation EPAM Systems fell by a third due to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
Will Poroshenko Become Belarus’ Advocate in the EU?
Belarusian-Ukrainian cooperation can greatly influence Belarus-Russia and Belarus-EU relations.
While the Kremlin remains reluctant to state as much, but it seems worried that Lukashenka supports the new Ukrainian authorities and opposes the decentralisation of its southern neighbour. If the Kremlin chooses to take a rough approach in its relations with Ukraine, a strengthening of Belarusian-Ukrainian relations could become a big irritant for Moscow.
Lukashenka-Poroshenko relations can soften the image of the Belarusian authorities in the West Read more
Simultaneously, Lukashenka-Poroshenko relations can soften the image of the Belarusian authorities in the West. Already many European politicians have stated their appreciation of Belarus’ policy towards Ukraine. The head of the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry Lynas Linkyavichus said that the "statements of the Belarusian leadership are very independent".
On 26 May, the future president of Ukraine declared the necessity of reviving the Eastern Partnership, which "can be a major motivation behind the development of democracy in Belarus." Poroshenko also hopes "to cooperate with Belarus for democratic change".
These statements should not be exaggerated. The Belarusian authorities thoroughly know that to normalise relations with the EU they have to release all political prisoners. Naturally, this does not require any participation of the Ukrainian authorities.
Ukraine also has too many problems of its own at the moment, so it remains unlikely that they will have the time to promote the interests of Belarus in the West. But at least the Belarusian authorities have found an ally, one which the West is listening carefully to.
The article has been written in the framework of the project "Election observation: theory and practice" upon the results of the Belarusian observation mission in Ukraine. The material is a part of the analytical document about the election in Ukraine which will be published soon.